Expected Council Action
In October, Security Council members expect to receive a briefing in consultations on the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), likely from Alexander Ivanko, the new Special Representative for Western Sahara and head of MINURSO, and from a UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs briefer. Council members are also expected to vote on a draft resolution to renew MINURSO’s mandate, which expires on 31 October. The Secretary-General’s report on the situation concerning Western Sahara is expected to be published ahead of the meeting. A meeting of troop-contributing countries with Council members is also scheduled ahead of MINURSO’s mandate renewal.
Key Recent Developments
Since the Council last discussed Western Sahara and the work of MINURSO on 21 April, the question of MINURSO’s leadership has remained an issue. On 24 August, the Secretary-General informed Security Council members of the appointment of Ivanko, a Russian national who had served as MINURSO’s Chief of Staff since 2009. He succeeds Colin Stewart, who completed his assignment on 26 August.
Meanwhile, the position of Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara has remained vacant since former German President Horst Köhler left the office for health reasons in May 2019. At the time of writing, however, the process of appointing a replacement appeared to have gained momentum. In a 14 September statement, the Permanent Representative of Morocco to the UN, Omar Hilale, announced Morocco’s approval of Italian-Swedish diplomat and former Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura as the next Personal Envoy. The following day, the Polisario Front—the entity representing the inhabitants of the Western Sahara region known as Sahrawis—said that it had already expressed its approval of de Mistura’s candidature on 29 April. Morocco’s eventual acceptance was reportedly the result of increased diplomatic efforts by the US and months of engagement by Secretary-General António Guterres with both Morocco and the Polisario Front. In his attempt to find an envoy acceptable to both parties, Guterres apparently proposed several candidates, including former Romanian Prime Minister Petre Roman and former Portuguese Foreign Minister Luís Amado.
Once appointed, the Personal Envoy will have to reinvigorate a stagnant peace process, building on diplomatic efforts underway since the signing of the ceasefire agreement 30 years ago on 6 September 1991. The situation in Western Sahara has remained precarious since November 2020, when Polisario protesters blocked traffic between the Moroccan-controlled side of Western Sahara and Mauritania at the border town of Guerguerat, following which Morocco deployed armed forces into the buffer zone. The Polisario Front subsequently announced it would no longer respect the ceasefire agreement, signed by both parties in 1991. The heightened tensions are reflected in the exchange of letters to the Security Council. In its correspondence dated 19 February, 16 May and 2 August, the Polisario Front called for “the attention of the members of the Security Council to the catastrophic situation in the territories of Western Sahara under the illegal Moroccan occupation, especially in the aftermath of the act of aggression carried out by the occupying State of Morocco against the Liberated Territories of Western Sahara on 13 November 2020”, the date on which Moroccan forces entered the buffer zone to expel Polisario protesters blocking the traffic between the Moroccan-controlled side of Western Sahara and Mauritania at the border town of Guerguerat. It also mentioned a “new wave of brutal violence and terror carried out by the Moroccan occupying state against our people in the occupied Western Sahara.” South Africa—which has been a supporter of the Polisario Front, including during its Security Council tenure in 2018-2019—shared the letters as an annex to official UN correspondence since the Polisario Front holds no official status with the UN. Morocco, addressing South Africa in a letter dated 24 May, said it “condemns the endorsement by South Africa of misleading terminology concerning the nature of the regional dispute concerning Moroccan Sahara, as well as the false allegations about the human rights situation in the Saharan provinces of the Kingdom of Morocco.”
The conflict has continued to affect regional dynamics. In another letter addressed to the Council dated 19 July, Morocco reacted to a statement by Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra during the Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, held on 13 July, in which he compared the situation in Western Sahara to a military conflict. Morocco’s letter said that Algeria denied the right of self-determination to the Kabyle people, an ethnic minority group in Algeria striving for independence and currently accused by Algerian authorities of causing wildfires. Algeria—supportive of the Polisario Front—was angered by the letter and cut diplomatic ties with Morocco on 24 August. Another diplomatic dispute erupted in May when Spain admitted the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, into the country for medical treatment on humanitarian grounds because of a COVID-19 infection. Morocco summoned the Spanish ambassador to Rabat and is reported to have temporarily reduced its border controls at Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, allowing several thousand migrants to cross into Spain’s territory.
In its latest letter to the Council dated 14 September, Morocco said it had held general legislative, commune-level and regional elections on 8 September, including in the disputed territories. Reporting a participation rate of 66.94 percent in the Laayoune and 58.30 percent in the Dakhla areas of Western Sahara, it attributed the high voter turnout to an “unwavering commitment of citizens of the southern provinces to their Moroccan identity and to the exercise of their inalienable right to the democratic management of their local affairs, within the framework of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Morocco”. In response, a 20 September press release by the Polisario Front called the ballot a “mock election” amounting to “colonial practices”.
Key Issues and Options
Reviving the peace process and recommitting parties on the ground to the ceasefire remain key issues. With the appointment of a new Personal Envoy apparently imminent, Council members will have the opportunity to map out their expectations for the new envoy through the upcoming mandate renewal. They may call for resumption of the roundtable talks, initiated by Köhler; the current MINURSO mandate noted Köhler’s intent to invite Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania to meet again in the roundtable format, which was said to have been a promising initiative.
Council members differ in their national positions on Western Sahara. On 10 December 2020, former US President Donald Trump announced that the US recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, securing in return Morocco’s normalisation of relations with Israel. Council members Kenya, Mexico and Viet Nam maintain diplomatic ties with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). India has withdrawn, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has frozen, their SADR recognitions. France has traditionally supported the Moroccan autonomy plan for the region. The plan was submitted by Morocco to the UN in 2007 and foresees the integration of the territory with Morocco, with the Sahrawi people managing their internal affairs while being represented externally by Morocco. African Council members may also take into consideration developments at the AU level. On 9 March, the AU Peace and Security Council adopted a communiqué in which the AU announced its intention to increase diplomatic efforts to bring about a lasting political solution to the situation in Western Sahara and to re-open the AU Office in the Moroccan–administered city of Laayoune.
Differences have also arisen during discussions of MINURSO’s mandate. Adoptions have not been unanimous since 2017, with Russia citing the lack of reference to the right of self-determination in recent mandates.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WESTERN SAHARA
|Security Council Resolutions|
|30 October 2020S/RES/2548||This resolution renewed MINURSO until 31 October 2021.|
|30 October 2019S/RES/2494||The Security Council renewed the mandate of MINURSO for 12 months until 31 October 2020.|
|Security Council Letters|
|14 September 2021S/2021/787||This was a letter by Morocco informing of the outcome of general legislative, commune-level and regional elections, also referencing Western Sahara territories.|
|24 May 2021s/2021/494||This was a letter by Morocco condemning political support provided by South Africa to the Polisario|
|17 May 2021S/2021/475||This was the letter dated 17 May 2021 from the Permanent Representative of South Africa to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council transmitting a letter form the Polisario Front calling on the Security Council to protect the Sahrawi civilians and ensuring their physical and moral safety.|
|31 March 2021S/2020/1075||This contained the explanations of vote on resolution 2548.|
|23 September 2020S/2020/938||This Secretary-General’s report covers the period from 2 October 2019 to 31 August 2020.|
|30 September 2021|